What Is Distortion in Music? When and How to Use It

When and How to Use Distortion

Music production software has limits for how loud an audio signal can be. If an audio signal exceeds these limits, it will distort and produce a raspy, loud sound that makes most people reach for their ears.

Unwanted distortion has a negative impact on mix quality. But it also has many musical uses when introduced with intent. It brightens synths and guitars, lends heft to drums, and supplies dull sounds with the right amount of attitude.

We’re in a peak (pun intended) moment for distortion as both a musical effect and aesthetic. Crunchy house and hip-hop tracks affixed with the descriptor “lo-fi” are riding a strong wave of blog buzz. DIY labels release cassette tapes. Even pop vocals are getting the distortion treatment.

In this article, I’ll show you how to creatively use distortion in your DAW, along with audio examples.

Types of distortion and their sources

Distortion can happen at the recording, production, and engineering states of a song. Here are just a few examples of how unwanted distortion can happen:

Impedance Mismatching occurs when the imedance (measured in Ohms) of an outputsignal - for instance a guitar - output produces a signal that has a high impedance value compared with the impedance value of a mic input, like you find on an audio interface or a mixer. A high impedance output will produce a very distorted sound on an input not designed to accept high impedance signals. The result is usually a distorted tone and unwanted noise in the signal.

Clipping is a type of distortion that most commonly happens while overdriving an input or output, which I'll discuss in depth below.

Truncation Distortion is caused by dropping bits when playing or rendering an audio signal that can produce a low level distorted signal. 

Now, back to clipping. Digital and analog distortion happens when an audio signal goes past the maximum level capacity of a system, which, in a DAW is generally 0 dBFS. When you clip, you lose the parts of the signal above 0dBFS threshold, clipping the signal.

Digital distortion happens when an audio signal goes past the maximum volume capacity of a DAW, which is generally 0 dB. In order to continue playback, DAWs will squash the parts of the signal above the distortion threshold, clipping the waveform.

DAW distortion capture with an oscilloscope
Distorting a sine wave in a DAW, captured with an oscilloscope

Clipping distortion generates non-musical harmonics that color sound, which you can hear happening in the example above. As the sine wave distorts, it actually sounds closer to a square wave.

This new harmonic information increases the perceived loudness of a signal. The peak level in a DAW may not change on a meter once the distortion threshold is hit (although oversampling meters values will) but the level of the new distorted signal will change on playback and seem louder. 

So, how can this be applied in a more creative, musical way? Let’s find out.

Tape saturation

When digital was introduced as a music production medium, many people complained that it lacked the warmth and character of analog technology. To some degree, this is true. As you heard above, digital distortion can be harsh. But when magnetic tape is overloaded by an audio signal, it produces a rich, harmonically-driven distortion, called saturation.

These days, we can reproduce analog saturation in our DAWs with plug-ins like Tape Machine. Saturation can be used effectively on pretty much any mix element, but it is perhaps most satisfying when applied to drums.

Have a listen to these drums without saturation.

The groove is there, and the kicks sound pretty tight too. But the percussion and snare could use a boost. So, I applied Ozone 8 Advanced Vintage Tape preset “Clean Fifteen” to warm up the mids and highs.

Warm up your drums with Vintage Tape
Warm up your drums with Vintage Tape

Here, Tape Machine adds clarity and fills up the empty space between each hit. Even though the drums have a modern sound selection and placement, they “feel” analog. In your own DAW, you can emphasize lows, highs and harmonics to suit your style.

Be cautious when applying saturation to hi-hats, cymbals, claves, and bells. These sounds already are already rich in high frequency content and will become rough and sharp with added or enhanced harmonics.  

From warm to abrasive

If you think a mix element is sounding dull and could benefit from added harmonics, fire up a distortion plug-in like Trash 2. It goes beyond the subtlety of saturation and really allows you to use distortion artfully. The plug-in has two distortion stages, each with their own curve and drive settings. It also includes a filter and built-in delay.

As a general rule of thumb, you always want to work with high quality samples and recordings. Distortion improves sound in many cases, but typically makes low-quality sounds worse.

Since most synths include primarily mid and high range content, distortion is most effective at adding brightness and shimmer. I’ll be working with this Brian Eno-like ambient pad.

I specifically want to enhance the high end frequencies so I enabled Trash 2’s multiband mode, and increased drive for a custom frequency range between 4–10 kHz.

Trash 2 Multiband Module
Trash 2 Multiband Module

The airy quality of the pad is emphasized, and pleasant grainy texture is brought out. As you ramp up distortion drive, your synth will begin to sing, or even scream as the timbre changes.

Drive will increase your signal’s amplitude, and make your mix louder. Monitor your Trash 2 output so the volume is consistent before and after distortion. Toggle the plug-in’s bypass to verify this. Just because your mix is loud does not mean it is full.

Paired with a bassline (also run through Trash 2) we get a large, dynamic wash of sound.

There are countless options for processing in Trash 2, so I encourage you to explore the plug-in to find presets you enjoy.

Distorted future

In this article, I showed you how to use distortion on drums and synths. But you don’t have to stop there. Use distortion to dirty up basslines, add texture to vocals, and transform guitars. But remember—there is such a thing as too much distortion in music! It can easily overpower other mix elements or muddy your mix as a whole. Start with low dry/wet and drive values, then slowly bring them up until you can hear a noticeable difference.

Explore distortion using Vintage Tape in Ozone 8 Advanced and Trash 2.

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